Way back in 1984, Universal Pictures released a then-long-awaited cinematic adaptation of a much-loved epic science fiction novel, Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
Younger people won’t remember, but there was a time when “Dune” was big. Huge. Way huge. However big you’re thinking, think bigger — there was a period in our history, when “Dune” had a collective fandom that exceeded “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” fans combined.
It was the ‘80s, after all.
Although I was unfamiliar with the book — other than the fact that many of my fellow high schoolers were HUGE fans, and one of them — Desiree McElrath — wanted to introduce me to the world (worlds, actually) of “Dune” by way of the movie.
Who knows? Maybe I would become a fan.
And then came the movie.
“Dune” (the movie) was ...to my memory, slow-paced, uninteresting, and complicated to the point that — and I’m not kidding, here — the theatre gave audience members a sheet of terms and words used in the movie for reference.
On top of this, at least according to Desiree’s reactions while we watched the movie, the filmmakers got it all wrong.
“That’s not right!”
“People won’t know who that is or what that means!”
“No -- that never happened -- they completely left out this important part!”
Much as I liked (and still do) my good friend from high school, at the time, I remember wondering “What’s the big deal?”
Fast-forward to 2017 and the release of “The Dark Tower.”
Having personally read Stephen King’s self-described magnum opus “Dark Tower” books, eight in all, which took the author more than 20 years to complete, I can say I’m something of a fan of them.
It may have taken me 33 years to say this to my friend, but after all these years, “Desiree, I get it — boy, do I get it.”
“The Dark Tower” book series is a deeply immersive, engaging, mysterious, epic tale that combines genre elements of Westerns, science fiction, dark fantasy, and horror, drawing inspiration from a poem by Robert Browning (”Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”), as well as “The Lord of the Rings,” the Arthurian Legend, and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” to create fully developed worlds, characters, and mythologies, with the main character (Roland) on a quest to reach a tower, the nature of which is both actual and metaphorical.
The movie? Not so much.
“The Dark Tower” (the movie) distills the 4,250 pages from its source material into a barely remarkable — other than its remarkable blandness — film that doesn’t even justify its barely-there run time of time of 90 minutes, culling bits and pieces from the books and cobbling them into an uninteresting effort that hardly seems worth the effort.
Imagine if there had been only one Harry Potter movie, in which, the audience meets Harry, he finds out he’s a wizard, what Hogwarts is, learns about and handily finds all the Horcruxes, meets and kills Voldemort in the movie’s last 10 minutes. Roll credits. Understandably, Potter fans would feel somewhat short-changed.
“The Dark Tower” (the movie) is the story of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), an adolescent New Yorker with a strong “shine” (psychic power, borrowing a bit from another King source, “The Shining”) which manifests itself as vivid dreams that his mother (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather (Karl Thaning) think are signs of mental illness.
Like all movie children, Jake draws detailed pictures of his dreams, which are of an Old West-ish planet called Mid-World where a daunting Gunslinger (Idris Elba) seeks revenge against the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a devilish magician who, with his well-organized multi-world army of human-skin-wearing minions, is trying to destroy the Tower in the clouds that protects the universe from being overrun by extra-dimensional monsters. Or something.
Thanks to portals (which are EXTREMELY RARE in the books, but fairly common in the movie), Jake travels to Mid-World and meets the Gunslinger, who is impressed by Jake’s powerful shine.
The Man in Black, whose name is Walter (no really), is impressed, too. He learns of Jake’s abilities by having one of his lackeys (Jackie Earle Haley) taste some of Jake’s blood (analysis: “His shine is pure”), which they have because the floorboards in the dilapidated Brooklyn house where the portal is hidden came to life and tried to prevent the boy from using it, drawing blood in the process. All of this is in the movie.
The film almost hints at deeper, richer mythologies than it has time — or interest — for, and even the film’s ending (keep in mind my Harry Potter analogy) doesn’t exactly leave any reason for any further movies to be made.
The movie has a glossed-over, watered-down feel to everything — not rushed, per se, but disinterested, almost like much of what was put on screen was an afterthought.
The stakes seem low even though they technically aren’t. The one bright spot in the whole film is Elba’s Gunslinger, who plays Roland’s stoic determination at getting revenge against the Man in Black better than the rest of the movie really deserves. The main focus of the book series is the Gunslinger, but in the movie, Roland is almost a guest-star in his own movie, playing back-up to Jake, who has more screen time than the Gunslinger or the Man in Black combined. Speaking of which, McConaughey’s Man in Black speaks in an overly-affected tone, and oftentimes comes off almost hammy as a villain.
“The Dark Tower” (the movie) should have been so, so much better, but it’s not. Instead of a rushed hour and some change glossy movie, the source material would have been much better serviced by a mini-series, along the lines of “Salem’s Lot,” “The Stand,” or “Rose Red.” Instead, “The Dark Tower” comes off like a rejected pilot for a series on the Syfy channel.
Go then, there are other movies than these.
“The Dark Tower” is rated PG-13, a lot of action violence, plenty of gunslinging, and multiple gratuitous Stephen King book references.